Oh shit, this guy again? Dr. Martin Brenner is one of the first faces we see in Stranger Things 4, even if it’s just a flashback: He’s working on a crossword puzzle and shaving — the suburban minutiae that gets him through his morning. Except today is different. It’s 1979, the morning before the massacre at Hawkins Lab. But wait, flash forward. He’s been alive this entire time? As revealed in the fifth episode, Hawkins’s resident mad scientist not only survived his Demogorgon attack back in season one, but he’s now working on the Nina Project hidden deep in the Nevada desert with the aim of restoring Eleven’s powers. Brenner’s (excuse us, Papa’s) mystique keeps Eleven, and viewers, questioning his intentions every time he walks into a lab, and “Papa,” the penultimate episode, confirms all of our worst suspicions about the doc. For years, he’d psychologically and physically tortured Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) to try to find One (Jamie Campbell Bower), his first telekinetic child subject, in the Upside Down — the discovery of which he covered up by pointing fingers at the Soviets. When rogue Army forces descend on Brenner’s lab in the present day, not even a mortal wound and tearful monologue can garner sympathy from Eleven, who can only muster a “good-bye, Papa” as he begs for forgiveness.
Despite Brenner seemingly perishing in the desert after taking a round of bullets to the back, Matthew Modine is hopeful that his character will return for Stranger Things’s final season; in his opinion, Brenner has defied death too many times to be a mere mortal. Modine wouldn’t mind a bit of redemption, either.
Brenner, a lot of people would argue, is the most diabolical character in the show’s history. What’s the most compassionate thing you can say about this man?
He loves the children.
You answered my next question.
I believe that 100 percent. The way I chose to portray him was as somebody who believed what he was doing had some benefit. How could he not love the children?
Did you always know you would return to the show after season one, or were you pleasantly surprised to find yourself being called back?
The Duffers always wanted Brenner to come back. There was going to be a big return for him in the second season. Writing a show like that — going through the creative process of the arc of the show and the seasons — it became clear as they were developing season two that there wasn’t a place for him. Then season three was quite a departure. I mean, they were in a mall. There was nothing about season three that really shouted “Hawkins.” That was a journey outward to get to the place where Eleven would lose her powers. Was there any other way to get her power back than returning to the person who was responsible for her having that power in the first place?
Were you presented with any story lines in the second season that were scrapped for the reasons you explained?
They didn’t go into detail about what the episodes were about. Even in season one, I was on a week-to-week discovery of who Brenner was. They never presented him to me as a diabolical character. They never said I was going to be responsible for the kidnapping or torture of a child. I didn’t have a character arc in mind other than what I, as an actor, create for the background of a character. What is the character’s education? What is his motivation? What does he do? Is he working for the government? Is he working for the military? These are decisions you have to make on your own as a performer, because none of that is explained in the story. You still don’t know who Dr. Brenner was working for or what his motivations are.
What background did you create for him?
Those are secrets actors should never reveal.
Interesting. Why is that?
I never liked going to museums and having an art historian explain to me the secret behind the Mona Lisa’s smile. I want to be able to look at it and experience it. If Leonardo da Vinci were alive to explain it, it would take all the speculation and adventure out of experiencing the painting as a viewer. I suppose I learned that from Stanley Kubrick. You don’t have to explain your creation. Let it speak for itself.
I’d like to explore Brenner’s logic, which takes up most of the action in “Papa.” With his dying monologue, he tells Eleven, “I’ve only ever wanted to help you and to protect you. Everything I did I did for you.” Do you believe him?
I do believe that, as a father, that’s what we do for our children. Dr. Brenner aside, there are going to be things your children are angry about and things your children are disappointed in. If you provide them with everything, they’ll complain about having been provided with everything. If they grow up without opportunity, they complain about their parents not being able to provide for them. It’s a process young people have to go through. It’s a trope; it’s a genre. It’s something religious and biblical — of having to leave the place you’re born and the people you come from to venture out into the world and slay your dragon. Like Dorothy when she leaves her home and travels away. The power was always within her; all she had to do was click her shoes. Or Joseph Campbell saying the force was always within us.
In the story Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, he joins all the different religions trying to find the spiritual truth. Then one day when he’s sitting under a Bodhi tree, he realizes everything he’s been looking for was within himself.
How does that type of pursuit relate to Brenner?
I believe the powers the children had exist within those children. It sometimes takes a person like Dr. Brenner to extract those abilities and knowledge. Maybe that’s what season five is going to be about — Eleven realizing she never, ever needed Dr. Brenner. Hopefully, what she’s going to discover is that she doesn’t have to use anger in order to summon her ability. Through love and forgiveness, which she doesn’t give to Dr. Brenner in that final moment, she doesn’t have to reach to an angry or painful place to become even more powerful. Love is more powerful than hate.
Eleven calls Brenner a monster — a pretty big blow given that Vecna is still around and terrorizing people. In your eyes, is he worthy of empathy?
There’s something called a “flea in the jar” experiment. If you put a flea in nature, the flea can jump seven feet. If you take the same flea and put it inside of a jar and put the lid on it, the flea, believing it can jump seven feet, will jump and bang its head against the lid. After several jumps and banging its head against the lid, the flea begins to believe that’s all the world is. When you remove the lid and put the flea back in nature, it will never jump seven feet again, because it’s been conditioned to believe it can only jump a few inches. This is a good metaphor for Dr. Brenner and the children. While he’s doing things to expand their abilities through telekinetic powers, he’s created an environment that has the children inside of a jar in order to control them. This is what I would define as mental slavery, and it’s an unforgivable crime. Somebody that would create this environment is not, by any means or any stretch of the imagination, a good person.
These scenes you share with Millie Bobby Brown are emotionally fraught and at the core of Stranger Things lore. How has your acting partnership evolved since the first season?
Millie was 11 years old when we began working. The thing about children is the best thing to do is leave them alone. [Laughs.] When we watch a child playing with a dump truck in the sandbox, they believe the dump truck is a giant truck that’s moving the earth and picking up tons of sand and they’re inside the Tonka driving it. It’s all a very real world. So the best thing to do with a young actor is to allow them to be. What you want to avoid is gimmicks and tricks the parents can impose on them. The good thing is that Millie’s parents and family understood that. They are so grateful for Millie to be able to have a scene partner like myself, because all I wanted her to do was succeed and be the best actor she could be.
For instance, if I’m Björn Borg, John McEnroe, or Rafael Nadal, if my partner can’t hit the ball back over the net, I can’t show you how good my game is. What you want to do is make the person on the other side of the net, your scene partner, be the best performer they are capable of being. So you work with them and you learn the dialogue — you understand the idea behind the dialogue, why the character’s saying this, why the character’s doing this, and what kind of physical behavior is important to represent to the audience, so they can understand what’s going on emotionally. These were all conversations I was having with a young child. The gift that Millie has is a tremendous intelligence and understanding of what I was talking about and the ability to take a very specific direction.
There were times this season when we would check in with each other, especially during scenes where we’re being harmful to one another. We would begin by saying, “I love you.” We would wink at each other before a scene started so we knew what we were doing, especially if it was saying something painful. It was a way to connect with one another and lift each other’s game. By season four, using the tennis metaphor again, I was playing with Serena Williams. I was playing with an expert at her craft. There were times I would look away and turn around, and all of a sudden I was working with Judy Garland. I’d turn away again, and all of a sudden she looked like Natalie Wood. There’s something “old Hollywood” about her.
Were the child actors afraid of you when the cameras stopped rolling?
I’m very happy to tell you the children loved me.
I think it’s because they loved Matthew Modine and they could go, “He plays a scary person, but in actuality, he’s a nice man who jokes around with us and is interested in our lives and asks us questions.” I was taking photographs of all of us goofing around behind the scenes. An interesting thing happened that wasn’t scripted: When I come into the room to get their attention and focus, I say, “Good morning, children.” The children didn’t have any dialogue and were just supposed to stand there. And yet they would respond, “Good morning, Papa.” The editors could have easily cut off those pieces and gone without it, but they used it. It reemphasizes Dr. Brenner’s love for the children.
Brenner’s death seemed pretty conclusive to me, but I’ve learned not to assume anything about Stranger Things. Would you say he’s dead?
No, I wouldn’t. Because I wouldn’t want him to be dead. Three things are curious to me: How did he survive the Demogorgon? How did he survive One? And when Eleven tries to use her power against Dr. Brenner after blowing three guards in the air, he unflinchingly thwarts her and says, “You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?” She couldn’t get it to work on him. Is there something more to Brenner than meets the eye?
I could be led to believe he possesses some sort of superhuman ability.
Yeah. I don’t want to believe it’s over, because I love the Duffers. I don’t want to believe it’s over, because I can’t wait to work with Millie again. I say Millie, because I don’t really have anything to do with the other cast members — except for Paul Reiser.
I love the power of redemption. I love the what it represents. I’m not a religious person, but my favorite parable from the Bible is that there was a woman who had committed adultery. The law of Abraham was to stone this person to death. And Jesus comes along and says, “Those among you that are without sin, cast the first stone.”
This idea of forgiveness is so powerful. I remember when President Obama went to that church where the congregation members had been murdered, and he sang “Amazing Grace.” It was really the first time in my life that I understood what grace is. Grace is the ability to forgive. In this world we live in — this cancel culture — that stands in judgment so quickly of other people and condemns people for mistakes they’ve made in their lives, I think the power of forgiveness and the beauty of grace are two of the most powerful things in the universe.
If Brenner returns in some capacity in season five, how would you like to see him redeem himself?
That’s a good question. Obviously, the only children he tortured who are alive, that we know of, are Eleven and Kali. I guess Vecna, if there’s any saving One. It would be that moment of them forgiving Brenner and giving him their grace. I’m reminded of the film Full Metal Jacket, when my character, Joker, pulls the trigger. At the end of the film, Joker stands over a young Vietnamese girl who’s begging him to end her life, because she’s in so much pain and bleeding to death. She’s just been shot by some of the other Marines. He says, “We can’t leave her here.” And the other guys say, “If you want to kill her, go ahead. Kill her.” Joker is faced with this existential decision. What is he going to do? He makes a decision to end her life. That’s the horror of war.
And the horror of what Brenner did is accepting and understanding his culpability in the death of all those children because of what One did. So if Eleven and Kali, or just Eleven, forgave him and sent him off, he would spend the remaining days of his life knowing he had been forgiven but having to accept responsibility for what he did. Do you think Donald Trump is able to sleep at night with a clear conscience? Or does he have to sedate himself and become a psychopathic liar in order to justify the behavior and the things that he’s done? Well, maybe he is. That’s a bad example. [Laughs.] I think Dr. Brenner is a more moral person than that, and he’d have to spend his final days acknowledging and accepting responsibility for the pain he caused. That’s the real nightmare — not being able to escape your thoughts and the things you’ve seen or done.
A lighthearted final question: What would be the song that saves you, as Matthew, from Vecna?
It would be something really silly.
“Hickory Dickory Dock.”
All right, that’s silly.
I’ll go with something more ominous. “Sympathy for the Devil.” I love the Rolling Stones.